TOWARD LIGHT: What’s at stake for these soldiers is not an island but their humanity.
Clint Eastwood does not say that war is hell. He says that war is shit. The desaturated, toned-down colors of Letters from Iwo Jima make the island look like a big pile of excrement. No wonder that the first reaction of Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), one of the Japanese soldiers who land on the island to take up its doomed defense, is to want to give it to the Americans, and no wonder that the officer Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) takes one look and declares it would be best to sink Iwo Jima to the bottom of the sea.
In the first of three scenes in the film that make Eastwood’s way of thinking about life come across as clearly as if he were dictating the images telepathically, Saigo is detailed to empty his unit’s communal chamber pot. Emerging from a cave onto a terrain of what looks like more black excrement, the soldier sees the US fleet laid out below him like a cutlery-shop window display. Startled, he drops the pot, which rolls away into a hole. Mortar fire blazes from the ships. Saigo lifts his head to see an unexploded shell protruding from the ground next to him, a cylindrical black turd fallen from the sky. Excrement, bombs: everything equals death on Iwo Jima. The natural cycle has stopped turning. What alone can be defended, the main characters learn, is not the island but their humanity.
In Letters from Iwo Jima, Eastwood poses in different terms the problem that concerned him in Flags of Our Fathers: people forced to become what they’re not. After a softening-up bombing raid by the Americans, a Japanese soldier stands among the burning ruins, his back to the camera; Saigo, addressing the man but getting no answer, walks around him to find that his face is a bloody pulp. The body stays erect by habit; death just completes a process already begun, the military process that turns humans into bombs or statues. (Later, the blinded Nishi stands as rigidly as the dead man to exhort his men: “Do what is right because it is right.”) Inside a cave, a suicidal officer (Toshi Toda) leads his men in destroying themselves with grenades; the instant result (also surveyed in Flags of Our Fathers: this is one of the convergence points between the two films) is that their bodies are transformed into art objects, their exposed insides glistening like crystal.
This moment is followed by the second of the three scenes in which Eastwood’s conception of life becomes transparent. Saigo, his face spattered with the dead officer’s blood, goes up a ramp to leave the cave (the way to the future, toward light: Eastwood makes the darkest films today, but also the ones in which light has the most value) but is stopped by another soldier, Shimizu (Ryo Kase), who threatens to shoot him. The scene turns on Shimizu’s hesitation: unwilling to kill himself, he finds it easier to kill the other (that’s his training), then realizes that nothing obliges him to kill at all. The third scene is the one in which Japanese soldiers find the bodies of two comrades who have been killed by the Americans to whom they had surrendered. Eastwood is a master of the extended look (this comes from the two directors he acknowledges as his own masters, Sergio Leone and Don Siegel), the look that stretches time and that is blinded by what it sees. Staging this look again here, Eastwood uses it to state in the strongest possible terms his opposition to the cult of death.